Judging a Book by Its Cover – Boys and YA Literature

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Boys: No YA Literature There’s been lot of discussion lately in the blog and twitter spheres on the subject of boys and YA (young adult) literature. More specifically writers and others are asking why more boys aren’t reading YA. I’ve followed a number of these discussions with interest, but for the most part I’ve been fairly quiet on the subject. However, a recent discussion (Where Have All The Young Men Gone? : Guys In YA) on YA author Dawn Metcalf’s blog has finally motivated me to join the conversation.

Most of us are familiar with the expression, “Never judge a book by its cover”. In other words, don’t assume what something is like based only how it looks. This expression is usually offered as an admonition about people and prejudice, but here I want to consider its literal meaning with regards to actual books.

YA is a growing genre with many talented writers crafting and contributing new stories which in turn expand the genre’s scope and readership.  (You can read more about it an article in this month’s Los Angeles Times.)  Nevertheless, I’m always struck when I stroll through my local Borders bookstore by what I see on the book covers in the YA fiction section.

First, a quick word about marketing.

Authors know that publishers make the final decision about cover art for the books they publish, not the authors themselves.  (There are exceptions of course, but not many.)  Authors also understand book covers are as much about marketing as they are about distilling the essence of the story with a picture.  Covers sell books.  This may mean a publisher might choose to emphasize a more marketable aspect of a book for its cover, while the author may feel a different aspect is really at the core of the story.  For the most part the authors I follow have been very happy with the final covers their books receive.  That’s a good thing!  But sometimes publishers miss the mark.

So what does this have to do with boys and YA?

I mentioned before I’m struck by what I see whenever I visit the YA section of the bookstore.  What strikes me is how little I see most of these images appealing to teenage boys.  As an adult I am happy to stop and pick up a few titles for a closer look.  Partly this is out of simple curiosity and partly this is because I’ve connected with some of these authors writing in the YA genre through social networks.  They’ve shared their views about their books and about their own writing process, in turn I feel more connected to them and so I’m interested in seeing their titles first first-hand.  However, a teenage boy walking through a bookstore won’t have my agenda.

He’ll see a book on the shelf and that book will have a precious few seconds to try to grab his attention long enough for him to hopefully pick it up and find out more.  If the cover art suggest the story is mostly a romance, he’s not likely to be interested.  If the cover features a lone, racy, weapon-clad heroine, with little else to depict the “story”, the image will scream “girl book” and he’ll leave it on the shelf.  Worse yet, if those covers make him feel at all embarrassed, like he’s wandered somewhere in the bookstore he shouldn’t be, he wouldn’t dare to pick one up, especially if he thought anyone was looking.  And more than likely, he’d likely simply steer clear of the YA section altogether.

So what’s the answer?

If we want more boys to read within the YA genre then publishers need to reconsider boys when making cover art decisions and stop making so many YA titles look like something they wouldn’t be interested in.

I couldn’t help but wonder while writing this post if J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was to be published for the first time in 2010 what the book covers would look like.  I suspect they would end up looking more like the covers for the DVDs rather than the lovely artwork of Mary GrandPre which depicts more of the story without the racy intensity of the main characters.

Harry Potter: Book Three CoverHarry Potter: Book Three Cover

So that’s my take.  The opinion of one (to quote Kate Hart of YA Highway) “brave male soul in a world of women YA bloggers”.  (This still makes me laugh every time I read it!  Thanks Kate!)

Okay, it’s your turn.  Please feel free to let me have it in the comments.

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15 Responses to Judging a Book by Its Cover – Boys and YA Literature

  1. Karen Strong says:

    I’ve noticed in bookstore visits how many books that they are that appeals to middle-grade boys and then it falls off when you venture into the YA section. It does seems that YA books have a predominantly girl audience.

    I would love to see more books catering to the boy audience. Maybe that will change in the future.

  2. JennW says:

    This is a great post and you make many great points. I think there are some good “boy” books out there, but so many are geared to girls and the marketing/covers especially. No boy is going to walk around with a book that looks girly, even if the book/subject/plot does interest them. But, I think we also need more “boy” books in general – in content, plot, etc. Good post!

  3. Kaitlin says:

    I think you’re absolutely right. My boyfriend tends to shun books I try to force on him if there’s anything about it that doesn’t appeal to him, because he’s not a big fiction reader. He’s an extreme case, because you really have to hook him in the first paragraph or he’s not even going to TRY reading it, but it was much easier to entice him to read The Hunger Games, with its fairly simple, neutral-looking cover than it was some of my others with more feminine looking covers.

    Maybe it is something publishers might want to consider, especially if a book should have appeal to both genders.

    • I agree completely. It’s amazing how much the cover suggests about the story inside. I also wonder how much publishers consider the reader after they leave the story. If I was reading a book with a racy cover, I would be very self-conscious about carrying it around for others to see.

  4. Dawn says:

    Huzzah! And, as you probably guessed, I agree wholeheartedly. I know that the market leans towards girl readers and the cover art does likewise, but I am wondering if an unintended benefit of e-readers is their “neutral” look. No girly/boy-y (?) covers to embarrass would-be readers? Whatever the deal, I certainly think there should be a way to make books appeal to guys. Like I said in the post, John Green (and MT Anderson) do a great job of creating stories boys would love, yet if you look at the covers, which ones might appeal to guys versus girls?

    But nerdfighters proudly feature both guys and girls. Hmm.

    Great post!

    • Thanks Dawn! And thanks for your post which got me thinking more about this. Regarding e-books, I use a Sony Reader and you’re absolutely right about how that neutralizes the book. With it, I’m left with just the words as the author intended.

  5. Anna says:

    The way YA books are marketed is something that’s been bothering me more and more recently. I personally am not drawn to books with the main characters depicted on the cover, especially if they’re photographs. Yet this seems to be the direction a lot of publishers are going in. So if it’s true that boys shy away from “girl” covers, they certainly aren’t going to pick up a book that has a photo of a girl on it. But some of those books could certainly appeal to male readers, if they could look past the cover. I tend to gravitate more to “boy books” anyway (maybe deep down I’m really a twelve-year-old boy) and I think that’s one reason I read and write mostly MG; as Karen said, there’s more for boys in MG than there is in YA. And to vent for just a moment longer, I hope for the day when terms like “boy book” and “girl book” will no longer be used; I feel like they just add to the problem by breaking readers up into such vast (seemingly opposite) categories.

    • I think you nailed it when you used the word ‘photograph’. I think that’s one of the things really bothering me about the covers of so many YA titles and explains the difference in intensity between the HP book cover and the HP movie cover. A story is an imaginary tale about people who don’t really exist, but a photograph is a real person (in this case a model.) An important element of the fictional nature of these stories is lost when “real” people are depicted on the covers rather than imaginary ones.

  6. About the role of YA books for boys => RT @JReaHedrick: Judging a Book by It’s Cover – Boys and YA Literature – http://bit.ly/aQbUsE

  7. Kate says:

    :)

    Also, as a teen, I would not have been caught dead holding a book with a pink cover. I was that kind of snob.

    • LOL

      I’ve been kicking this post around for nearly two weeks while I struggled with the whole “boy/girl” book language. Obviously boys and girls are different, but I don’t go in for gender stereotypes as such, and I didn’t want this to come across that way either. In fact, my wife and I agree on this so much we chose not to learn the sex of any of our children before they were born so our families and friends would be more intentional about gender-neutral gift-giving. We ended up with lots of yellows and greens. :)

  8. Nothing at all new to share on this subject. This quote from Lauren McLaughlin remains my absolute favorite on the subject:

    “Girls benefit from being forced to read boy protagonist books in school. It broadens our perspective. We ask too little of boys.”

    I fully agree with her. For some reason we (as a culture) are okay with boys who would reject reading a book because there is pink and glitter on the cover. And that is such a failure on our part.

    I mean, could you imagine if a girl proclaimed she refuses to read this version of CATCHER IN THE RYE because the horse on the cover is too ugly or scary?
    http://catchingsalinger.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/the-catcher-in-the-rye-cover.jpg

    How about if she refused to read Percy Jackson’s LIGHTNING THIEF because the cover was blue? And if she refused to read a book because it’s about “boy stuff” her own mother would probably take her to task.

    So why the double standard?

    Marketing shoots for the girl market because women buy more books than men anyway, across the board and regardless of age. I think the last stat I read was somewhere in the 80% range… where 80% of books purchased are purchased by women.

    But marketing aside, why aren’t we teaching our boys to be strong enough to pick up a book with a girl on the cover and not feel a deep gashing wound to their soul? I don’t get it.

    Admittedly, I’m old enough to remember the time before YA, when my Jr. High self was given the option to read either Sweet Valley High or Anne of Green Gables to find stories about kids my age or a little older. I despised both of those series, so ended up reading Agatha Christie novels and Anne Rice to avoid the onslaught.

    But you know what? I spent most of my high school and college career reading books written by and about old white guys, and it didn’t kill me or destroy my femininity.

    I write books with strong women/girls in them. And I write books with love stories. And if a boy avoids my books because of those two things–or worse, because there’s a picture of a strong woman on the cover–his loss. I’m not going to retool my storylines or ask my publisher to rework a cover design to appeal to a culturally skewed ideal of what a boy is supposed to like. Because the truth is that the best men in my life are attracted to strong women and fall in love with their whole hearts. Those are the boys I write for.

    On a side note, I tell all the teen boys I know that reading girl books really is the best way to figure out what girls want. With that perspective in their heads, most boys will carry around their pink covered tomes with pride. ;)

    • I’ve seen that quote too and love it!

      It seems to me much of this stems from a lack of confidence in boys (and men) today. I could write a dozen posts about why I think this is true. But I digress…

      I’m suddenly reminded of a soap commercial years ago featuring a popular football player *I think* showering with a poof. I thought it was great! (I’ve been looking for it on YouTube without success.) Still, it’s a shame not only that what was featured was out of the ordinary, but that the advertisers knew it was necessary to pitch their product that way for men to believe it was “okay” to use a poof (because this macho athlete uses one!) since they knew most men lacked the confidence to decide it was okay to use one on their own.

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